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Republic of Ireland: Off the Beaten Track

Years of turmoil made the North of Ireland a no-go zone for many tourists, and justifiably so. There was a time when, whatever your perspective on the Troubles, driving around here could be a bit nerve-racking. But times have changed, and peace has taken hold here, giving you a perfect opportunity to discover this complex region. It is, perhaps, the most untouched section of Ireland, since for decades it's been protected from the tourist hordes by its political problems. Even today you can explore the restless beauty of the Antrim Coast in relative peace, and walk the Giant's Causeway alone at sunset. But do it quickly, because word is getting out.

Day 1: Belfast

Spend the morning getting your bearings, something that is best done by getting out on the street and walking. You can easily see most of Belfast's central sights -- tour the grand City Hall, shop on the small medieval arcades, stop to view the extraordinary ceiling mosaics at the Belfast Cathedral. Have lunch at White's Tavern, a 300-year-old pub where you can get traditional Irish stews, and bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes) in a historic setting. In the afternoon, take a Black Cab Tour of the Falls and Shankill roads -- these one-on-one tours of the areas where the Troubles were the most destructive are an unforgettable chance to hear what happened from those who were there.

Day 2: Carrickfergus & the Antrim Coast

The noble Norman castle of Carrickfergus stands guard about a 15-minute drive from Belfast, and if you head there first thing in the morning, and strike out northwards on the A2 road from there, you'll be amid peaceful coastal scenery in about 20 minutes -- look out for sweeping views of craggy coastline just after the town of Ballygalley. Stop in the little town of Glenarm to explore its castle walls and take in its stone buildings, then head on to Carnlough, where you can walk to a waterfall before having a traditional Irish lunch at the Londonderry Arms. Next, drive on to Cushendun, to photograph its little stone cottages and have a cup of tea. From there, if you're not afraid of heights, follow signs for the Torr Head Scenic Road to Murlough Bay for the most spectacular views of the day from the top of a rocky cliff so high that clouds swirl around your ankles. Spend the night at Whitepark House overlooking the white crescent of White Park Bay.

Day 3: Ballintoy & the Headlands

After a soul-affirming breakfast, take a brisk walk down the steep hill to White Park Bay, and explore for fossils and seashells while soaking up the sea air, then backtrack a few miles on the A2 to the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge (but only cross it if you're fine with heights). Heading northwest again, follow signs to the Giant's Causeway, and spend an hour or so exploring its dramatic octagonal pillars. Lunch in Ballintoy (or have a picnic on the beach at White Park Bay), then either relax in the countryside or take an afternoon tour of the Bushmills Distillery in Bushmills. Spend another night at White Park House.

Day 4: Derry

Head inland along the A37 to the busy waterfront town of Derry -- about a 40-minute drive. Spend the morning wandering its 17th-century city walls, taking in the views and history, and have a pub lunch at Badger's. In the afternoon, indulge in some shopping in the old city (especially in the Derry Craft Village), then explore the Tower Museum and the Cathedral of St. Columb, where a 17th-century mortar shell still sits on the porch. In the evening, feast on steaks at O'Brien's, then meet the locals and catch a traditional Irish band at Mullan's Bar.

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